Mon 3 Sep 2007
my grandfather closed up his cottage this weekend, with the annual labour day cornboil. this means it’s fall now, clear and true as the schoolbells in the air and the smell of woodsmoke curling down the street.
fall makes me nest, and reflect. i want to bake and pickle things, and settle into my surroundings…i want to walk through my neighbourhood, noticing things before the snow comes to blanket them.
it would be easy to say there isn’t much to see.
we live in a part of town that noticed the real estate bubble only after its collapse a couple of years ago…in a neighbourhood that is still very similar to what it was when i grew up in this city twenty-some years ago. we are – as yet – far from gentrified, sandwiched between the Dairy Queen and the bootlegger district, with a tattoo shop conveniently located on the corner. this narrow street has a vacant lot and a chop shop where motorcycles come to have unspeakable things done to their baffles, and a row of plain, aged clapboard houses in varying states of disrepair and decay and outmodedness. ours was the nicest on the block long before we bought it and let all the bushes grow wild and the garden eat itself, alas, but we’d still win any block contest no matter what we did to the flora. we have a porch with cute little paned windows, and shutters. we’re adorable.
i like where we live, inordinately and perversely. our neighbourhood doesn’t have what real estate agents usually call “character,” and yet…if you look hard enough, and with a little imagination, it’s bursting with it. it’s neither especially pretty, nor particularly reflective of my own values or tastes. but it’s interesting. it’s no Stepford community, pristine and swimming in bland inoffensiveness. there are the cars in the muddy lot by the chop shop, waiting to be built up and brought back to life, all of them looking vaguely like El Camino wannabes. there’s the lot itself, rutted with tire tracks and rife with weeds and puddles, a fascinating place for a small boy. there are the houses, mostly small, a generation or three old now. judging from the last two open houses we attended on the street, most haven’t had their lineoleum changed since 1962. a few have window ledges lined with little glass animals i vaguely remember my grandmother collecting in my childhood. a few others, less fastidiously tidy, have recycling bag mountains piling up in the three feet of front yard. there’s a driving school that runs out of the house next door because this is a mixed use corridor, and a Very Large Tattoed Dude across the street in what used to be the world’s tiniest little crackhouse. there’s the boy up the street, no more than fifteen, who sits on his front stoop in the evenings and smokes cigarettes with great contempt for all that is not as cool as he. this boy manages – with a practiced smoothness i secretly admire – to spit out of the side of his mouth with such fluidity that the serious business of his smoking is barely interrupted.
i considered, one night, walking by with O in his stroller, asking the boy to babysit. just to see what he’d say.
i have spent many hours in the comfort of my own head, trying to suss out why, precisely, the area’s quiet seediness makes me feel so damn happy. or entertained. or virtuous. i have come to the conclusion that it’s partly because despite my Academic Pretensions i am still naive enough to believe i am One of the People, child of a single mother who always felt just a little out of place in my friends’ suburban homes (what a sparklingly unique urchin, yep…cue violins), and thus i believe that in living here i have somehow managed to maintain my down-with-my-bad-self authenticity. or conversely, because in living here, i get to look like the classy one on the block in spite of the fact that our lawn has gone to seed. both are true, even if neither are simple. plus the ‘hood pleases me because i’m cheap. and lazy. despite Dave’s preference for a nice acreage way the hell out in the Back of Beyond, we bought this house because it was inexpensive and cozy and had a yard and a shed and was still really, really convenient. as in, ten minute walk to the downtown core, all two blocks of it. as in, four minute walk to a variety of grocery and drugstore shopping complexes, plus a cute little bakery, plus the best pizza in town. as in three doors down from great Chinese food…and did i mention the Dairy Queen? did i mention the view out our front door is the corrugated siding of the biggest liquor store in the city? (i think that was what sold Dave, in retrospect. it’s an acquired taste, that view, but it shor’ is handy.)
but i think the truth is i like living here because it connects me – the long-transient, dislocated, vagabond part of me – to the visceral textures and smells not only of childhood, but the paths i’ve travelled since. this is as close as i can get to urbanity and still live in a town whose city status is really only a politeness. here, there are pitted sidewalks and old trees, and cooking smells, and the chance to wander with a bit of anonymity. it’s still safe…doors are only sometimes locked, and crime is lower than in wealthier areas, so long as we don’t mind occasional rude graffiti. people are nice, too, for the most part…they nod and smile. but they don’t want to know what i do, or whether i’m good for their property value. and when i step out the door at night, i still get That Thrill. not a thrill of real danger, which, chickenshit that i am, i don’t really go for. just That Thrill of being out in public space. shared, contested, public space, used by different generations and different classes of people, seen in totally different ways by different eyes.
i walked across the vacant lot last night, trying to get to the Co-op before closing. Dave and i were making an apple-blueberry crisp for my grandfather’s corn boil, and we were out of brown sugar. it was just past dark, and warmish, and since the Co-op is literally a four-minute walk across the lot from our door, it seemed stupid to drive. but it is so seldom i walk alone at night any more. especially across a dark lot, where kids drink, and bikers tinker and cats prowl. even though the lot is directly across from the well-lit, patio-lanterned porch of two of our elderly neighbours, who sit in there nights and watch the goings on, and even though most of the bikers who frequent the chop shop are actually city cops (go figure, freakin’ noise polluters), i still got That Thrill creeping up my neck.
genuine cheap thrills are hard to come by in this life, especially on a Saturday night when you’re out of brown sugar.
is that enough to make a neighbourhood? i wonder sometimes. there are no kids Oscar’s age, and i think in three or four years that may start to matter a lot. and yet i’m not sure that there isn’t great value for him in feeling at home in a place like this too, among people who are different from those he will encounter at the university where mummy & daddy work, or among the kids likely to be his friends at the French school we’ll eventually likely send him to. i both want people like us to move into the neighbourhood, and at the same time don’t want to teach him that only people “like us” are worth getting to know, worth considering as part of your community.
what counts as “neighbourhood” to you? and what do you want in a neighbourhood for your kids?